Lifetime’s UnReal premiered in the summer of 2015, the evisceration of The Bachelor we didn’t know we needed. Set behind the scenes of a long-running reality show called Everlasting, UnReal was a pitch-black, deeply cynical series packaged inside the fizzy, poppy, voyeuristic wrapping of reality TV, a format in which pain is manufactured for ratings. The show’s protagonist, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), was an empathic antihero who used her powers to manipulate contestants, mostly women, into providing hours of entertainment for the show’s mostly female audience. Her work was beneath her and she hated it, but she couldn’t stop doing it, her internal conflict a supercharged version of the one facing all of us who passively consume the bread-and-circus act of American life, because, well, what else would we do?
UnReal’s version of reality TV was always exaggerated. The truth—which is that most episodes of The Bachelor are really boring—was not strange enough for fiction. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who co-created the show with Marti Noxon, was once a producer on The Bachelor, and every episode of Everlasting was jam-packed with enough revelations, cat fights, and misunderstandings to fill multiple Bachelor seasons. By the end of UnReal’s first season, there was a body count, but the show’s tendency to go over the top still seemed like a part of its overall ambition to entertain and gut you at the same time. It overserved reality TV conventions until they made you sick, forcing you to consider the ethical breaches behind your seemingly harmless prime-time distraction.
Then came the second season, in which the aesthetic choice to be too much tipped over into a big mess. The season began promisingly, with Everlasting’s first black suitor, a step that The Bachelor itself has yet to take. (A black woman has since starred on The Bachelorette.) But UnReal was as myopically fixated on saying something about the hypocrisy of liberals as hypocritical liberal Rachel, who imagined having a black bachelor on the show could give her work social value, was about race relations. Both used police brutality and violence against black men as a prop—Rachel creating a situation in which the suitor’s best friend was shot by the police, and then the show casting him aside as a minor plot point. By the end of the season, two more people were dead and UnReal was clearly infected with the reality TV imperative toward drama that the show had once so bracingly skewered.
Season 2 was widely regarded as disastrous, and the series took more than a year and a half off before the arrival of its third, which begins on Monday night. Yet again, UnReal’s new season has a timely premise: the first female suitor in Everlasting’s history, and a self-proclaimed feminist to boot. Serena (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is a tech millionaire—“the female Elon Musk”—who is there to optimize her chances of finding a husband. Rachel again thinks she can be the contestant to make a meaningful, progressive statement to the American public, one about a woman not having to compromise or suppress her accomplishments to find a man. Serena is beautiful, rich, and brilliant, as well as high-strung and brittle. She’s a poker shark who lords it over the men she beats, who are turned off by her gloating, which gives executive producer and one time men’s rights advocate Chet (Craig Bierko) a chance to convince her to be much more flirtatious, girly, and hesitant.
With Serena, UnReal gets to state out loud so much that is implicit in the calculations on The Bachelor about what makes a woman appealing or unappealing. The performance of femininity and masculinity on The Bachelor, however cartoonish, is a reflection of how those roles are performed in the real world. That’s why the show is so fascinating: There’s always a little acting to dating, and on The Bachelor, there’s some dating to the acting. By diving into these issues, UnReal seems to have solved the problem of the show within the show. The new season of Everlasting isn’t crazily exaggerated. No one is dying, getting shot, or having a mental breakdown; the guys are just talking smack in the hot tub, getting into fist fights, and cutting off each other’s man buns.
But behind the scenes, things are still needlessly insane. UnReal has always been in a kind of complicated dance with reality TV tropes, where it’s not always clear who is leading whom. In the first season, the show was definitely leading when it pulled a rope-a-dope on its audience, eviscerating the genre of the matchmaking reality show but also suggesting real love could be found in its vicinity, even if that love couldn’t last. It was a nicely executed instance of letting the audience have its cake, eat it too, and then find out both slices were poisoned. But UnReal seems less in charge when it comes to matters of escalation and repetition. Like a reality show, UnReal always gives its audience the same thing, just slightly different and ever so much more. Every season of UnReal has a new suitor, but it also has the mentally unstable Rachel racing toward a breakdown—this time having to do with a horrible past trauma—that will exact an even greater cost than it did last time.
Rachel’s looming meltdown is to UnReal what the honeymoon suite is to The Bachelor: a structural requirement. Following the deaths of last season, Rachel has been at a retreat for six months, trying to live honestly and celibately. Her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) shows up and convinces her to come back to the job she hates just by … asking? Every season of the show has begun this way, with Rachel coming back to a job she knows she should leave without too much arm twisting. This is a trope of many sequels too—gotta get the gang back together again for one last job!—but it’s destabilizingly half-hearted here. Rachel and Quinn’s relationship is supposed to be the sustaining bond of UnReal, two empowered but damaged women taking on all comers, dysfunctionally devoted to one another, even as they also are constantly abusing one another. But their girl power connection has a flimsiness to it. It’s not just that they are so cruel and callous with each other and everyone else, though they are—it just seems like Rachel should and would go get another job. And why not? There are all sorts of other reality show formats UnReal could explore. It’s not just Rachel who could use a new, temporarily drama-free start.